Christmas 2021 is just two weeks away. After two years of pandemic concerns and lockdowns, we are attempting to get back to some semblance of normality, despite the fact that we are still bombarded by reports of supply chain issues, inflation, and politically motivated news stories that keep our anxiety alive and well - and of course, another COVID variant to brighten our days.
But let's put all this aside, just for a bit, and try to find some solace in the holidays. After all, this is the time to enjoy family, friends, and, as they say in the best banal fashion, the "reason for the season". Along with the hustle and bustle of shopping and parties comes some of the finest Christmas movies ever made - 1946's classic "It's a Wonderful Life", 1938's "A Christmas Carol", and who can forget the 1947 hit, "Miracle on 34th Street", however, there is one movie for me that rises like cream to the top of unpasteurized milk. A movie so special that I can watch it over and over and find another life lesson every time. That movie is "A Christmas Story". Please indulge me as I share my own personal history with this movie.
It was December 1985
Some thirty-five years ago I was making my first of many annual business trips to the west coast and then onto Asia. My first stop was always California, then Hawaii, on to Japan, then Philippines, Guam, and back again – a trip lasting nearly a month, allowing me to make it home just in time for Christmas. I was much younger then with small children at home and traveling so far was not ideal but it was a part of my profession at the time and it paid the bills.
Getting into the holiday mood was difficult while being on the road, especially in areas where tropical conditions and thundering downpours replaced the snow and cold. It just didn't seem right. During these trips, Manila was the operating base of my work and although it was decorated for the season, temperatures in the mid-eighties and high humidity were just not conducive to feeling the Christmas spirit.
My business took me to many of the islands in the Philippine chain, including Luzon, Mindanao, Cebu, and more, with the only white Christmas to be had there were the pristine alabaster sands on the beaches. I recall staying in a well-regarded hotel that featured small lizards crawling on the walls of my shower and upon complaining, was asked if I would rather be sleeping with biting insects. Choices, as they say.
These trips also took me to Tokyo, where the weather was much more holiday-like and on one occasion I even experienced a heavy snowstorm. The locals did celebrate the trappings of Christmas, like shopping and light displays, even though most are Buddhist or Shinto. But even then, my first trip was one of being homesick. It just didn’t seem like the holidays.
The Flight Home
At the end of the trip, I was boarding my flight in Tokyo and preparing to return to the states. It was now mid-December and I had missed Thanksgiving and most of the build-up to Christmas Day. We were flying directly to the west coast on a “red-eye” flight and then on to New Jersey. Normally, I would read but it was dark and I chose to watch the movie and hopefully fall asleep during the long flight home.
Settling in, I plugged in my earphones for the entertainment. According to the onboard brochure, they were showing A Christmas Story. Up to that point, I had never heard of it and was turned off by the name and the fact that it was made in 1983. I mean, it was two years after the fact and now I was first hearing about it? Meh!
I remember thinking, what movie of any worth about Christmas was made after the 1950s? They could have shown any classic movie, but a movie from 1983 -- Bah Humbug! I'd rather sleep.
As the opening credits rolled, things got even worse – Darren McGavin as one of the stars, how good could this flick be? This was a guy who had an ill-fated TV series called Kolchak where he was a reporter chasing vampires, and now, he’s in a Christmas movie? But, don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its opening credits. And now, nearly four decades later, A Christmas Story has become a part of my holiday season for so many reasons -- reasons that seem to change as I get older.
A Cast for the Ages
For those who haven’t seen it, the story centers around a nine-year-old named Ralphie, who longed for a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model air rifle, politically incorrect today but perfectly acceptable at that time.
Ralphie was played by Peter Billingsley, who was already a successful child actor in commercials in New York in the 1970s. According to the movie’s director, he auditioned some 8000 kids for the role and settled for Billingsley, who in retrospect seemed to be an obvious choice.
Then came Darren McGavin, the “old man” as he was called, who was always grumpy, gruff, and spewed obscenities like there was no tomorrow. In real life, McGavin's own life experiences prepared him for the role. He was kicked out of his house by his parents when he was a teen and forced to scrape by to make a life for himself. His portrayal of the hard-boiled old man came easy and was believable to the audience. And in the end, this ornery old cussing cur was proven to actually have a heart after all.
Melissa Dillon was the mother, married to the old man, and following behind him trying to clean up his messes. Dillon, for those who don’t know, was also a starring character in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A Reflection On My Life
Throughout the movie, characters and situations were introduced that reflected back on our own childhoods (for those of my age and even today). In fact, the narration throughout reminded me of the 1960s radio plays called “Mystery Theater”, which I listened to on radio station WEST-AM in Easton, Pennsylvania. This movie was certainly no Miracle on 34th Street, it was better, much better...because it hit home.
"What A Christmas Story had that other movies did not was a sense of nostalgia -- that carries over to today. It was the craziness of my family. It was all of our Christmases and all of our families!"
What A Christmas Story offered that the other movies did not was a sense of joyful and oft times embarrassing nostalgia, a feeling that returns no matter how many times it is viewed. As I sat on that plane, thousands of miles from home, the situations that Ralphie and the family experienced had the same themes as those with which I grew up. It was funny, uncomfortable in a comforting sort of way, and poignant. It was Christmas at my house. It was the craziness of my family. It was all of our Christmases and all of our families!
When the "old man" won his coveted “leg lamp”, it reminded me of my own father’s holiday treasure – the Bradford Snow Maker, a machine that guaranteed everyone a "white Christmas" (and one which invoked more swears from my mother than I knew existed at the time).
This contraption consisted of a huge green cardboard base with a hollow green tube that stretched up the trunk of the tree to an Angel tree topper. A small suction machine in the bottom sucked small Styrofoam particles up and blew them out onto the tree, in an errant attempt to portray snow falling gently through its branches. It was wonderful in theory but did not work as advertised.
Although the “faux snow” came flying out, there was nothing gentle about it. It was poorly thought out when being used on a real tree as the white particles would get stuck to the sap that flowed freely due to the warmth of the house and turned brown, resulting in a tree that looked as if it had acne.
And the base, which was supposed to capture the falling snow and recycle it back into the blower and up into the angel for distribution, wasn’t large enough to be effective. This resulted in quite a mess on the floor, much to the consternation of my obsessive-compulsive clean freak mother. The house vacuum ran more than the snow machine during Christmas and for the next few years, Dad had to buy bag after bag of the fake white stuff.
But as with all good things, the end came one fateful Christmas Eve for the snowmaker, much like the broken leg lamp in the movie. That year, my brother and I decided to surprise Dad by setting up the machine while he was at work. During the process, the suction mechanism fell into the water that fed the real tree and sucked up the liquid, shorting it out and spelling the end for Dad’s favorite Yuletide toy. We never told him what happened, letting him think that it just died a natural death, but for our mother, the demise of the snow machine was the best gift she had received that Christmas.
Likewise, the incident where Ralphie’s classmate's tongue froze to the flagpole. Although I never had the urge to stick my tongue onto cold metal outside, I did decide to try and lick up a piece of popsicle frozen to the bottom of our freezer when I was in the eighth grade. This adventure not only left a piece of bloody tongue skin on the freezer bottom but I also received a smack to the back of the head for good measure from my mother who had to scrape the tissue free.
And of course, who could forget the turkey scene in the movie, where the family dog made off with the holiday meal. As a child, we never had an animal steal a holiday meal in my house but I do remember one Christmas dinner where my mom decided to make homemade ravioli for the first time, and for whatever reason, they ended up being the size of small frisbees.
As we sat down to dinner, my father, cracking wise said, “This ravioli is out of this world.” To which my mother, smiling lovingly and proud of her creation, replied, “You really like them?” And my father said, without missing a beat, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried them yet. I mean they look like flying saucers from Mars.” With that, I could see Dad’s lips curl up, trying to get those words back but it was too late. This not only led to a very quiet meal, but the mood in the house for the next week was colder than the winter weather outside.
Respecting Our Seniors and Our Parents
What I experienced then and continue to experience with this movie is the absolutely wonderful zany dysfunction of families – which is why that insurance commercial struck a chord. Some thirty years ago, the “old man” in the movie was my old man, something I swore I would never be. But now, retired and smarter, I have become the “old man”. And just what is so bad about that? What’s wrong with becoming like our parents?
Sure, they made mistakes, and we surely have and so will our kids. Life is a series of missteps and bad choices from which we learn. We experience marriages, divorces, births, deaths, kids getting in trouble, and on and on, but the overwhelming majority of us survive, learn and grow from these experiences and even have a laugh about them. I remember an older neighbor saying to me one time, “be careful about judging your parents because one day, you're going to have kids who will judge you.” Truer words were never spoken.
The first time I met certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III, I was interested in how a relatively young man chose to specialize in elder law. It was immediately apparent that he had a deep respect for seniors, what they accomplished through the years, and the importance he placed upon assisting them through the aging process.
He told me that his first realization of the value of those who are older came while working on a boat as a teen. He remembered climbing masts, running on gangways, checking pumps while the captain sat in the stern holding the tiller. In his mind, he would quietly tell himself that while he did all the work, the pilot “just sailed the ship”, too lazy and too old to do the physical work.
"I came to realize it was not by muscle or physical endurance that great things are accomplished, but by reflection, character, judgement, and experience. It is this that makes our seniors not poorer by age, but richer -- sometimes beyond what younger people can truly comprehend until they themselves mature." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III
“As I grew older and matured, I realized just how faulty my youthful thinking was,” said Attorney Connelly. “Although the pilot was not doing the physical work that I or the other young men were doing, what he did was much more important than the tasks we performed. I came to realize it was not by muscle or physical endurance that great things are accomplished, but by reflection, character, judgment, and experience. It is this that makes our seniors not poorer by old age, but richer – sometimes beyond what younger people can truly comprehend until they themselves mature.”
It is this statement that really explains A Christmas Story, at least for me. As I have aged and matured since first seeing the movie, I first saw my father in the old man character and now I see myself. Where I once reflected upon my childhood, I now reflect upon my relationship with my children and grandchildren while watching the movie.
Ralphie’s family is our family, warts and all – and that’s the charm of the movie. Today, my grandchildren watch A Christmas Story and are glued to the screen. No special effects, wild car chases, or obscene cartoon characters. It doesn’t matter what the race or the ethnicity of the children watching, because what they see is their family. And as they grow, they too will begin to experience the importance of the movie’s message and realize that in time, this will be them. They, too, will become “their parents” at some point and like me, they will realize that there is no shame in that. Merry Christmas, everyone.